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December 2018

What’s the Essence of Modern Leadership?

(Domhnall O'Sullivan)
As Switzerland unveil its two newest Federal Councillors, we asked readers, experts, and politicians what kind of skills are needed to lead a modern democracy.

What makes a leader? Is it a question of qualification, connection, temperament, or simple political serendipity?

Switzerland has been mulling the question for some months now, as it prepares to learn on Wednesday the names of the two Federal Councillors that will replace outgoing Johann Schneider-Ammann and Doris Leuthard. Both declared their departure from the executive body in September.

In the consensus-driven Alpine nation, at least, some requirements are more prosaic than others. Firstly, to preserve the so-called “magic formula” that safeguards balance in the seven-member Federal Council, the two new ministers will be drawn from the same political groups as their predecessors – the centre-right Liberal-Radicals and Christian Democrats.

Then there is the issue of origin. Switzerland’s diverse cultural-linguistic regions tend to cling tightly to ministers when they get one. Leuthard and Schneider-Ammann are both germanophones, which somewhat simplifies matters. As does the selection process: parliament decides based on party recommendations.

Add to this the growing calls – both from the public and from the political establishment – for more female representation, as well as eagerness for young blood in an ageing cabinet, and the pool of candidates shrinks almost to the point of inevitability.

Your say

But what about candidates’ personal qualifications and qualities? Does the country rather need lawyers at the helm (the US model, traditionally), or more technically-minded leaders (à la China)? More scientists or tech wizards for the digital age? A healthy helping of gravitas? Multilinguals (including English)?

When we put the question to followers on social media, answers varied widely. A couple of readers, fed up with a perceived dominance of lawyers and political types, called for more scientists: “they’re closest to reality”; “it would be good to have a person that understands energy and environmental problems, who could provide some solutions”.

Business people, sometimes seen as examples of pragmatic “real-world” problem solvers that are lacking in government, were alternately lauded (“someone who has worked at least 10 years for private business”) and decried (“definitely not a businessman; it’s not working so well for the US”).

The issue of age (“at least 45”), tech savviness (we live in a “whole new environment”), and the competence to grasp and manage complex dossiers without getting bogged down in details also featured. One reader suggested that Roger Federer become more than just a figurative king.

The Federal Council, Switzerland's executive, in relaxed mode, July 2018

Character counts

Beyond the debate about qualifications, backgrounds, and CVs, however, the simple quality of possessing “common sense” was far and away the most prevalent reader recommendation. One person even contrasted this directly with the seemingly undesirable status of having “too many degrees”. 

Political scientist Claude Longchamp, of research institute gfs.bernexternal link, agrees with this sentiment, though he arrives at a slightly different conclusion. For the veteran analyst, who has seen the transformation of the typical Swiss politician from locally-driven “man of the people” to today’s more multifaceted leader, qualifications and expertise come second to gravitas.

“A Federal Councillor should be able to represent Switzerland with gravitas,” he argues. He or she, says Longchamp, should be able to go beyond the “mere” ability to manage a dossier to demonstrate the stature and charisma of a statesman, or woman. Current Federal Councillor Alain Berset has such qualities; Karin Keller-Sutter, widely tipped to succeed Schneider-Ammann, does too.

This analysis might seem vague coming from a political scientist, a profession that often distils the minutiae of public life into rationalised and precise divisions. After all, you can’t quantify charisma. But this is the point. The intangible truth of leadership involves equal parts persuasion, knowledge, humility and confidence, beyond the measurable.

It also reflects Swiss particularities. Federal Councillors are not like ministers in other European countries, Longchamp emphasises. Elsewhere – in France, for example – ministers can be specialists in charge of specific dossiers. Here, federal departments are broad amalgamations of topics suiting wide-ranging generalists.

Generalists wanted

Longchamp also notes as important the ability to overcome party-specific affiliations to serve the common (national) good, something of which current President Alain Berset is again a positive example. It’s more difficult for politicians coming from extreme positions on the political spectrum than for traditional centrists.

Thirty-year-old Lisa Mazzone, a Green Party politician from Geneva, was until recently the youngest member of the House of Representatives. (She was dethroned by 28-year-old Fabian Molina last year).

Mazzone is not in the running for Federal Councillor and says that she wouldn’t particularly want to be. But what “type” of politician would she like to see sitting on the executive body?

he Geneva politician, who herself studied French and Latin literature, avoids putting much emphasis on technical qualification or background. “It’s more important to be a generalist,” she says. Key skills, she believes, are the ability to understand a dossier quickly and effectively explain it to a media-saturated public without oversimplifying the issues.

She also echoes Longchamp, and our readers, in noting that temperament trumps almost everything. She cites “people skills”, a true “grounding in Swiss values”, and a commitment to “transcending party divisions” to act in the interest of the nation as the most important qualities in a leader.

There has been a recent increase in so-called “professional politicians” who enter full-time politics without having previously carved out a career in another field. Mazzone, who technically fits that description, is reluctant to say whether such politicians are better or worse suited for leadership, though some critics claim they are divorced from citizens’ real lives.

She admits some of her colleagues are perhaps more interested in “being” politicians rather than “doing” politics, but her goals and motivations are clear.“I entered politics because I wanted to change society,” she says.

This article is reprinted with permission from
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